Moms and Dads tend to deal with a child’s chemical dependency in different ways. Dads often want to fix the problem, dammit, to make the kid better, to solve all the problems he or she created along the way. For fixers, all this hard work gives rise to some serious resentment and tests even the best anger management skills. In contrast, Moms want to soothe the hurt, protect the baby, kiss the booboo away, even if that requires them to bear their pain. For us enablers, speed dialing grief counselors or Jack Kevorkian can be the order of the day.
This disconnect in parenting styles didn’t arise with addiction or alcoholism. It probably lay dormant all along, but a child’s chemical dependency throws kerosene on the flames of parental disconnect and discontent. Mars to Venus, we’ve got a problem, illuminated by the flame-out of our struggling children.
In order for the family to get healthy, it is essential to “circle” the wagons, which requires all parties to agree to take the same approach towards chemical dependency. It requires a common understanding of the disease of addiction and a shared commitment to not enabling, not fixing….simply getting out of the way of our children as they try to right their own ships. It requires us to talk with our spouses/partners when we would rather retreat or cast blame or yell or cry. Being the parent of an addict is not for sissies, but it give us a chance to hone our resiliency, character, and commitment, which are silver linings in an otherwise dark cloud.
How long did I deny this statement? For many years, I believed it was a matter of willpower. As long as I denied that it was a disease, then I would stay in utter conflict and constant turmoil trying to fight it. In this resistance mode, I was acting as if I knew best, based on no true knowledge about the chemical reaction in the body and the disease of the mind. I would lecture, blame and scold when my loved ones already had a bad opinion about themselves. I would take charge, place orders and expect change, but the outcomes were never what I wished for. I would do it again and expect a different result. The same result would happen and I still tried it again!
Alcoholism is also family disease, and if you were to look into my life, you would have seen evidence that it was not just the alcoholic/addict to be concerned about. I was progressing along with them. I was obsessed with saving those I cared about and in so doing my behavior was certifiable! And all the effort was doing nothing to help the problem. They were getting worse, and so was I.
To learn as much as I could about the disease I read the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, I went to open AA meetings, the 12 Step program for alcoholics, and I listened to Alcoholics in recovery on speaker tapes. To get a grip on myself, and to learn more about my relation to the family disease, I went to the Al-Anon Family Groups. I no longer deny that addiction is a disease, and completely understand why willpower is not the issue. I also know it’s a family disease. I don’t have to know why anymore. Being able to see my role in the disease dynamic has been a game changer. When you know better, you do better.
When a child is in the throes of addiction, Mom or Dad often becomes the punching bag, figuratively and sometimes even literally. They yell at us when they get in trouble, they blame us for their mistakes. “It’s all your fault!” is a common refrain in the homes of addicts and alcoholics. As a very backhanded compliment, young addicts tend to lash out and blame the parent who is the safest, the softest, and the most tolerant. They may also blame and attack the parent they feel they have disappointed the most, as that sense of failure creates overwhelming, explosive anxiety.
So what do you do when your child is imploding in your face? While it’s natural to get defensive and leap right into a yelling match, instead just “spit out the hook,” as they say. When your child rants and raves, just say “Oh” instead of defending your decisions or actions, or trying to reason with an unreasonable person.
It helps to have some tools at your fingertips to disengage. Learn how to say, “Oh” instead of trying to arm wrestle with an agitated child. Learn that you don’t have to say anything at all. Know that you don’t even need to be there. And your child loses the right to be in your presence if they become verbally or physically abusive. It’s time to take care of ourselves, and maybe–just maybe–that will help turn their tide of anger and lashing out.
Practice saying “Oh” so that it comes naturally under pressure, or just walk away altogether. You don’t need to stick around and take the abuse, which becomes like gasoline on a fire. It is so hard to not take the bait, but it’s harder to stop the confrontation before it starts.
And remember, you didn’t cause the addiction, and you aren’t responsible for solving the problems the addict creates.
The Partnership at DrugFree.Org does an outstanding job promoting resources for parents through various campaigns and there is one in particular I heard on the radio that I just love. It completely represents how I acted with my sons in the beginning. When I first heard it, I thought YES! I had a bunch of awkward moments, feeling the intense desire to confront my sons and accuse! I just didn’t know what to call it back then and I did not know how else to “handle” grave concerns. Of course their own responses were fairly well represented in the ad. What’s astonishing is that the same rhetoric was heard in a business meeting I attended last week; all I have to do is change the names in the script.
I guess we humans have a universal way of not communicating how we really feel – especially when the topic is backed by fear, ignorance, or any strong emotional attachment based on…experience, beliefs, judgment.
There really is a better way to have a more productive conversation and it begins with me. Left to my own devices, I come out of the shoot with the finish line in sight and ultimately say something I’m going to regret – it sounds just like this:
Mom: “Awkward, confrontational accusation!”
Daughter: “automatic denial!”
Mom: “Angry irrational statement I’ll regret later…”
Daughter: “Fake, emotional whimper”
To see the “typical conversation” advertisement click here!
Coming out of a drug addiction does not come easy. Going through detox rids the addict of the active drugs from their body. In that process, it does not heal the brain; it only begins to start the healing. The cravings are so strong at this initial stage, that it is a miracle when any addict stays clean. My daughter went to a different town to go to a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility in order to get away from the imminent danger of being with friends who were using and give herself time to start healing. She also went to this long term rehabilitation facility to get intensive counseling she needed to work on issues that were troubling her. There are many reasons why a person uses drugs. Sometimes it starts out recreational and then escalates into an addiction. Others times it is to escape feelings or situations that are painful. And it’s everything in between.
Part of a stay at any rehabilitation center is educating the family members of the loved one. Many of these rehabilitation centers do an excellent job of taking families through the understanding of the disease of addiction. They also help with how to handle difficult situations and take control of your life. As many of us know, when you have a loved one struggling with addiction there is a lot of drama that can seem never ending. At times I would get a call with various demands and it can sometimes be difficult to say no. In some cases you hear of kids who are using drugs call their parents telling them things like, ‘I lost my job! Now I won’t be able to pay my rent! Or I lost my paycheck! One of the techniques that I learned during the family session is to respond by saying ‘Oh.’ There are many ways to say ‘Oh’; ‘oh?’ or ‘oh!’ or ‘oh…’ By saying ‘oh’ you don’t engage to start solving the problem that is really not yours to solve. And many times if you let twenty four hours pass, they solve the problem on their own which gives them a chance to learn and grow. Next time you find yourself in a situation that you don’t want to say yes or you don’t want to have the argument that comes with saying ‘no’, then try just saying ‘oh!’
Addiction is maddening. It makes us angry, and it makes us crazy. As I walked the walk of my son’s addiction (and my addiction to his addiction), I journeyed through dark forests of denial, sinkholes of depression and explosive minefields of anger—his and mine.
I was stunned when I first realized the magnitude of my son’s problems, which I took on as my own. I was frozen and numb as I surveyed the damage. It was an out of body experience: this cannot be my life.
At some point, denial morphed into depression and then into outright rage as I began to calculate the cost on so many fronts: mental and physical health issues, property damage, squandered money and the incalculable cost of betrayal. I felt duped and betrayed by someone who I loved. I went crazy trying to make sense of addiction: if he loved me, why did he keep doing such destructive things to himself and our family? Today, I understand that the poor choices of an addict aren’t driven by love at all. But in the depths of my despair, I racked my brain in a vain effort to make sense of the senseless.
I was also mad at the world. Why didn’t insurance pay for rehab? Why didn’t someone warn me about teen addiction the way they told me about chid predators or meningitis? Why couldn’t my friends understand the depths of my pain and despair?
It took a lot of being angry, being introspective, grieving and the good old fashioned passage of time for me to work through my anger. Along the way, I learned that anger, while an essential stage in the grieving process, needs to come to resolution and acceptance. Buddha said it best: “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else—you are the one who gets burned.”
For help working through your anger, check out our Anger “Meeting in a Box.“
There are so many times in the day that we get the opportunity to make choices. Do I stay in my warm cozy bed early in the morning or get up to get in a work out? Do I choose the salad and soup or the less healthy hamburger and fries? The list goes on and on. These are examples that while important are certainly not done with serious angst and personal sacrifice. Yet when it comes to relationships and how we deal with conflict or controversy it can be quite stressful. We can choose character building actions that entail facing the issues that are plaguing us or we can choose the comfortable way which would be to ignore or delay a conversation. When I heard this stated as choosing character versus comfort it truly made me stop and think about when I choose comfort over character building.
With our loved ones in addiction it seems we encounter many opportunities to choose character building versus comfort. Early in the journey before I understood about the impact of enabling my daughter I made many decisions to avoid the conflict which made things more comfortable. But when you compound these types of decisions you put yourself in a compromising position to be set up for failure. For example, when my daughter would call me asking for money I had the choice to give it to her and avoid the fight, which was more comfortable, or tell her no and set boundaries. Saying no and setting boundaries is when I began to build character of strength, determination and resolve. Strength because I knew in my heart that she would not use the money for healthy choices, determination because I had to set the precedent that I was not the bank, and resolve because I had to put a stop to the endless struggle of enabling her addiction. In every case that I choose ‘character building’ it not only was the right choice for the moment but also for the long run. When I choose ‘comfort’ it just delayed the inevitable and put off the real work that needed to be done. I am determined to keep focused on character building versus comfort which will help me and those I love.
Your question: During six years of heroin abuse, my son has spent the last three years clean and relapsing. After this last relapse, his step-father of 20 years said he longer wanted to speak to him. He can’t understand how/why he can keep going back to using. He has never attended a meeting with me or read anything about addiction.
I, on the other hand, say that as long as he continues to keep trying to quit, I will stand by his side. I no longer give my son money – he holds a job – but he does live with my mother. I too am tired of the lies and the other addict behavior but I can’t give up on him until he gives up on himself. Now I feel as if I must choose between my husband and my son……..
Answer from Expert Ricki Townsend: Thank you for your question. I believe that each one of us handles this situation in our own ways and there is no single way that works for all. Your bottom line for you son comes from your heart and from what you have learned at meetings, and it is important to honor your perspective, as well as those of other people.
I am assuming you are in Al-Anon meetings. Your husband has chosen not to attend, although going together would help you be on the same page in terms of knowledge about addiction. For the health of your relationship, you might have one last conversation, stating you want to stand by your son without enabling him. Your husband can choose his own path with your son. Then state that you respect his decision. You are basically agreeing to disagree. After that, I would not discuss your son with your husband at length.
Is your son paying your mom for rent? Is he going to any kind of meetings? Is he seeing an addiction therapist? Lastly, is he being drug tested randomly on an ongoing basis? These things need to happen in order for him to be in recovery, rather than mere abstinence or in downright relapse. Have a conversation with your son to let him know that these are the requirements for you to be involved with him. Give him a compelling reason to stay sober. And remember that he needs to be more committed to his recovery than you are.
At a recent meeting I attended there was a very insightful speaker. When it was time for sharing amongst the group the topic chosen was conflict. Specifically, do you avoid conflict or do you engage in conflict? We discussed the effects of each. If you look at the dictionary definition: ‘a disagreement or clash between ideas, principles or people’ then you may realize that this is part of life. Conflict serves a purpose which is to discuss differing views which is necessary in many situations.
When we discussed conflict avoidance there were many examples of how avoiding conflict is very harmful. In the instance of having a loved one struggling with addiction confronting a situation while the person is high on drugs, it can actually become dangerous. Yet in many cases where we are avoiding conflict, we are actually not affectively creating boundaries within our homes or lives. If you have a child who is bringing friends over that are using drugs and you don’t confront the situation, it could get really out of hand. You could become liable for things they are doing, it could create a bad example for other siblings in the house, you could begin to find things missing, and the list is endless. The conflict of confronting the situation could be very uncomfortable but the outcome of having healthy boundaries and rules to be followed is so important.
On the other hand, there are some people who welcome conflict, even search out or create conflict. This can create a combustible situation with rippling effects. Many times when a situation gets out of hand, it isn’t that something does not need to be addressed, but how it is addressed. Coming together in a level headed way when both parties are able to listen and discuss is obviously critical.
I know from my own experience that when I put off standing up for something that I know needs to be addressed for fear of conflict, I always found that once I took action it worked out one way or another. I find that I am more aware of when I am hesitant and realize that it is disrespectful to me and others if I don’t take care of something that needs to be said. Conflict can be healthy when approached in a positive, open manner.